It’s time we stopped talking ourselves down
Western People 6.1.2022
One of the obvious truths about modern Ireland is how rich this country is now. Yet for some reason I just can’t seem to get my head around it. Even though the evidence is there for all to see so many of us just don’t seem to quite believe that it’s true.
By any estimate salaries, homes, cars, holidays, hobbies, travel, pensions, clothes – all the obvious ways of measuring prosperity – are quite spectacular, especially in comparison to where we were.
I’m not thinking about the Great Famine, just 175 years ago, or our long and depressing history of emigration or the recent memory of officials from the International Monetary Fund supervising our embarrassing post-Celtic Tiger collapse or the even more recent cost of COVID-19.
I’m thinking about the ease with which the present government decided during the recent lockdowns to borrow billions of euros to respond to the challenges of the pandemic while reassuring us that our healthy economy would be capable of bearing the burden of such enormous levels of debt.
I’m thinking about respected and authoritative commentators like Stephen Collins in the Irish Times a few weeks describing Ireland as ‘one of the richest and fairest societies in the world’. And the recent United Nations human development index, which measures countries in terms of wealth, health, education, women’s rights, safety and tolerance, rating Ireland as second in the world to Norway.
Less than 20 years ago the Celtic Tiger had left its toxic legacy and the fall-out threatened to destabilise the Irish economy. Now in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, how could anyone – least of all an experienced and reputable commentator like Stephen Collins – describe us as ‘one of the richest and fairest societies in the world’?
And yet, somehow, it’s true. Yes, we have our problems: an apparently unsolvable housing crisis; the ongoing Brexit nightmare; climate change; the threat to our pharmaceutical industry; the over-stretched and (we’re told) under-funded health service; worries about the rise in inflation and not least a raging pandemic.
Yet despite it all, our economy is healthy, tax receipts are beyond expectation, employment is beyond Celtic Tiger figures, 29,000 new jobs were created in 2021. And the prediction is that the economy will grow 14 per cent this year. It seems that no matter how we look at it, yes, we are ‘one of the richest and fairest societies in the world’.
Why is nobody telling us this good news? Where’s the media coverage? Of course, bad news is always more compelling than good news. So, Joe Duffy oversees the national complaints departments where whingers gripe and grumble to their hearts’ content about Ireland’s woes. Radio producers search out the most breathtakingly sad and depressing human situations and facilitate a re-telling after yet another re-telling – while those trying to come to terms with similar conditions watch in horror with their families at home.
A new book by Mark Henry, ‘In Fact: An Optimist’s Guide to Ireland at 100’ makes the point more trenchantly: ‘Rarely does a radio programme or TV documentary dwell on the progress we have made. Despite our incredible achievements, it is the progress we have not made, or the road bumps on the way, that get airtime. The fact that no mother has died giving birth this month is not news. The fact that no one has died doing their job this week is not news’.
Stephen Collins gives an example of what he calls the ‘narrative of failure’ that persuades so many to accept ‘a warped vision of reality’. As recently as the early 1970s, when there was a tiny fraction of the current number of cars on the road, the death rate peaked at 640 a year. Now the number of road deaths is less than 150 a year. Yet, Collins points out, in a recent survey 66 per cent of people thought that driving behaviour was deteriorating.
Almost as a matter of course, we believe the worst about ourselves. Fed on a diet of the word ‘crisis’ being thrown around willy-nilly, everything is going to the bad: the health service, education (both of which are among the best in the world); the weather (it isn’t); children (not really, just other people’s); unemployment is increasing (it isn’t). And on and on it goes.
We insist on talking ourselves down, even when the evidence to the contrary is staring us in the face. A recent example was the decision of the government to subsidise fuel bills in the new year to the tune of €100 due to expected increases in electricity and gas charges. A Sinn Féin politician criticized the government, arguing that the €100 should be given before Christmas!
This is the kind of nonsense that drives this ‘narrative of failure’. Radio producers, especially of news programmes, presume that an adversarial approach delivers what they call ‘balance’ and they imagine that by haranguing guests and continually interrupting them somehow delivers ‘balance’ when all it does is to encourage the belief that the presenter and not the guest is the person we want to hear.
Of course, there are still problems – not least the resilience of the Covid virus and its latest variant that, as I write, is bringing such grief to so many. The figures seem staggering and there are questions about our ability to stay the course.
So instead of talking ourselves down – ramping up the culture of complaint that has become second nature to us – maybe we need to acknowledge our phenomenal achievements and the promise of a bright future.
Who knows, we might even find a solution to the ongoing mystery why Finland can house its people and we can’t.